Examine Said’s definition of Orientalism


Examine Said’s definition of Orientalism

Edward Said, in his book, adopts a continental interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism, using the principles of phenomenology, existentialism and French structuralism to trace out the connections between literature and politics. His theories and methods have tremendously influenced American academic circles especially with regard to literary theory and cultural studies. Said’s central concern in Orientalism is the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language, and power. He attempts to show how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to build up a prevalent and hostile image of the Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate.

He also attempts to show the extent to which these representations permeate the Western culture. The West exploited these representations to justify their imperialist policies in the Middle East. In Orientalism, Edward Said has used various derivatives of the word Orient which literally means the East, the direction from which the sun rises. Geopolitically Orient signifies the Middle East, Asia and the Far East, territories that were once a part of one or another European Empire. Said uses the word Orient to signify a system of representation framed by political forces that brought the Orient or the East into Western Empire, Western learning and Western consciousness. The West uses the word in its relation to the East. It is a mirror image of the inferior, the alien (other) to the Occident (West). ‘Oriental’ is a noun-form which means an individual or people of the Orient. As an adjective the word qualifies anything belonging to the East e.g. Oriental landscape, literature, attitude, etc.

‘Orientalist’ means a person who studies or writes about the Orient. ‘Orientalism’ is used academically to signify Western doctrines and theses about the Orient. Said also makes it clear that he is not attempting to cover the whole area. He focuses on how American, English, and French scholars have approached the Arab societies of the Middle East and North Africa. The period he covers in his book extends from the late eighteenth century to the present. Edward Said’s starting point in Orientalism is that the existence and development of every culture impels the existence of a different and inevitably competitive “other” or “alter ego.” Therefore, Europe, in attempting to construct its self-image, created the Middle East (the ‘Orient’) as the ultimate “other.”

Examine Said’s definition of Orientalism

The Middle East (the ‘Orient’) and the West (the ‘Occident’) do not correspond to any stable reality that exists as a natural fact, but are merely products of construction. Edward Said put forward several definitions of ‘Orientalism’ in the introduction of his book Orientalism.

Firstly, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'” Said argued that his distinction emphasized the supremacy of the Occident versus the inferiority of the Orient. Second, Orientalism is a field of academic research that includes everyone who teaches, investigates, and writes about the Orient. Third, Orientalism is a “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient” beginning in the eighteenth century. In short, Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Moreover, it is a way of coming to terms with the Orient (the East) that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western culture and experience. In the light of this perception, the Middle East isstatic, unalterable, and can’t define itself. Therefore, through Orientalism, the West took it upon itself to represent the Orient and by doing so opened it to exploitation. The very purpose of Orientalism isto take control of the Orient and take away from it any ability to speak for itself. Said maintained that it is the stereotypes and prejudices that determine the Western representation of the Orient

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